The whole universe was idiotic.

Anticopernicus, by Adam Roberts

Of all the great philosophers and religious figures, it was Copernicus who was the greatest, for he alone had preached the truth to humankind: you are not special.

But what if Copernicus was wrong?

Adam Roberts is one of those writers I’ve long meant to read, but haven’t got round to. Enter Kindle Singles, which are a great way to try out new writers for less than half the price of a cup of coffee (not that cups of coffee are particularly cheap these days, I admit). 

There’s a grand tradition in SF of using short stories as a means to explore ideas which are interesting, but not substantial enough to support an entire book. Anticopernicus fits squarely in that tradition. Centuries ago we used to believe that the universe literally revolved around us. We were special. We were the most important thing in existence.

Over time that idea got discredited, slowly and at great personal cost to many of those who fought against it. Well, I say discredited, but of course while nobody really thinks the universe literally revolves around us anymore billions do still think it was created precisely for our benefit.

Among scientists though, among those who seek a material rather than theological explanation for our existence, everything we’ve learned suggests that we have no privileged position. We are not special. We are not central to the universe. We appear to live on an average planet in an average solar system in an average galaxy.

The only wrinkle in all that is that in one particular respect we seem very far from average, and that’s that we are here at all. Everywhere we look in the universe we see no signs of intelligent life beyond our own. We see no grand galactic building projects, we hear no radio signals, nobody comes to visit us. We listen to the universe and all we hear is a great and empty silence.

The working assumption right now is that there likely is other intelligent life, but that the universe is a bit more hostile to it than we initially thought so it’s rare and spread out. If that’s true then we’re still not special, just not that common, and the silence is just because our neighbours are very far away.

In Anticopernicus the aliens finally do come to visit us, but when they do it doesn’t turn out quite as we expected…

The extrasolar intelligence, or intelligences, or—who knew what they were, or what they wanted—they had approached as close as the Oort cloud, and there they waited, patiently as far as anybody could see, for the Leibniz to trawl slowly, slowly, slowly out to the rendezvous. Communication had been intermittent, although the aliens’ command of English was fluent and idiomatic. But most of the questions beamed out at them had been returned with non sequiturs. What do you look like? Where are you from? By what political system do you organise your society? Are you an ancient race of beings? How do you travel faster than light? Do you come in peace? How did you find out about us? Where are you from? What do you look like? Fingers are a mode of madness—and toes! Toes? Toes! What do you mean? Do you mean you don’t possess fingers and toes? That the sight of them distresses you? Do you have flippers, or tentacles, or do you manipulate your environment with forcefields directly manoeuvred by your minds? We can wear mittens, if you like. If it distresses you. We can wear shoes on our feet and boxing-gloves on our hands! Not that we wish to box with you … we have no belligerent feelings towards you at all! We love your fingers and toes! They are adorable! Adorable! But mad.

Ange is one of the astronauts sent out to the Oort cloud to greet our visitors, and to find out why they’ve come. She’s an introverted sort, someone who prefers her own company to that of others and is more afraid of the idea of an afterlife full of countless dead people chatting away than she is of simply ceasing to exist when she dies.

As Ange and the rest of the small crew of astronauts head out though something strange happens. The alien ship, massive, detectable even from Earth, vanishes. Why? What could bring them all that distance and then just make them leave?

Ange didn’t say anything, but it seemed to her more than likely that the departure was as random and inexplicable thing as the arrival. She believed (and this belief was as close to religion as she came) that the universe was not structured according to the logic of the human mind, despite the fact—ironically enough, perhaps—that the human mind is unavoidably part of the cosmos. The billions of buzzing homo sapiens brains craved pattern, structure and resolution; they saw the beauty of a story arc in every rainbow’s bend. The cosmos liked structure too, of course; but of a much less complicated, or perhaps it would be truer to say a much more monotonously replicated, kind. Hydrogen and helium everywhere in varying alternated clumps; the inverse-square-law everywhere in every direction. Everything existent, nothing mattering. And above all the cosmos had no sense of story whatsoever. If aliens arrive in a human story and set up a meeting, why, then there must be a pay-off of some kind! But neither set-up nor pay-off was not the logic of the cosmos; and most assuredly the latter was never intrinsically folded neatly inside the former, waiting to germinate. If the aliens had randomly vanished, as they seemed to have done, then that was (Ange thought) just one more unharmonious broken-off piece of the infinitely unharmonious piecemeal cosmos.

The answer, and there is one, is that Ange’s belief is utterly, utterly wrong. We do in fact matter to the universe. We matter a great deal.

I won’t say more since it would spoil the story, but I really enjoyed this. It’s not a meaty piece, it’s a fun little SF tale which takes an idea and runs with it. It’s not really credible, but then not all SF has to be. Back in the 1970s SF short story anthologies would routinely have a few tales in them that were just intended to be plain old entertaining, not to be taken too seriously, and this is firmly in that camp. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that some of the scientific elements it (very lightly) references are modern concerns it could easily have been written in the 1970s.

All that said, I wouldn’t remotely recommend this to non-SF fans. If you do already like the genre though it’s definitely worth checking out (and if you don’t like it at least it’s short and cheap).


Filed under Novellas, Roberts, Adam, SF, Short stories

16 responses to “The whole universe was idiotic.

  1. Small comment just to say that I have a few kindle singles I’ve read that I haven’t bothered putting in my Review backlog list up at the top-right of the blog. I plan to start feeding them in from time to time when I have a spare few moments, since they may still interest someone. The others so far are a Tom Rachman short story and a Richard Russo novella – both very different to this and to each other.

    For those not familiar with them kindle singles are short stories/novellas sold through Amazon at a very cheap price. It’s a nice way to get short stories out there, since otherwise they can struggle to find a home these days. It’s also of course, as I say above, a very good way to try out a writer that’s new to you.

  2. And another small comment to say that actually, Anticopernicus isn’t a kindle single at all. It’s just very cheap (77p). Oh well.

  3. I may have to pick up this one. By the way, my theories are the opposite – in my stories the universe is full of beings who share similar DNA and have evolved intelligence and a moral sense, but who look entirely different from us and have cultures related to their evolutionary structure (insects, birds, lemurs, etc.). That may not be as philosophically speculative but it’s a lot of fun!

  4. This post made me think of that roundabout metaphysical saying that we are all special and (somehow simultaneously) no one is special. It makes sense in a weird, topsy turvy sort of way.

  5. AggieH

    Another insightful review that makes interesting connections. This is why I like this blog.

    – “All that said, I wouldn’t remotely recommend this to non-SF fans.”

    Oh. I read general & literary fiction. That means I read SF accidentally, without calling it that. If I call it anything, I call it Sci Fi, which is now illegal. I don’t seek it out as a genre. I’m not a ‘fan’. But until I read that final para, I was rather captivated by the idea of this book.

    – “while nobody really thinks the universe literally revolves around us anymore billions do still think it was created precisely for our benefit.”

    Sadly true. Symbolic baby steps forward – I pointlessly and pedantically wish we could find other words for ‘sunrise’ and ‘sunset’.

    – “I plan to start feeding them in from time to time … since they may still interest someone. … a Richard Russo novella”

    Speaking of people who think the universe was created precisely for their benefit: I do hope you post a review of the Russo because I’d like to read it. I think Richard Russo deserves more attention than he gets. I think a lot of the specific praise that gets directed at Franzen fits Russo’s work better.

  6. Vishy

    Nice review, Max! I have heard of Adam Roberts but have not read any of his books. This looks like an interesting story. I liked this sentence from your review very much – “they saw the beauty of a story arc in every rainbow’s bend.” Kindle singles look quite wonderful.

  7. You’re from a very different SF tradition Lorinda, much more focused on cultural than scientific or technological issues. I’ve seen the term social SF used, though that doesn’t feel quite right. Still, a world (a galaxy even) away from the SF traditions that focus more on exploring ideas about the universe itself than the people within it.

    Of course, in a way this is a sort of riposte to those tales, where it turns out the most interesting thing about the universe is us after all.

    It comes up in the surprisingly right wing animated film The Invisibles literary, if everyone is special then nobody is. There’s an element of truth to that, although it’s a bit pat and the alternative (that some people aren’t special) leads to a view that some people are essentially interchangeable, unimportant, extras, which I tend to think a very dangerous idea indeed.

    AggieH, thanks for the kind words. I never got that SF and Sci Fi thing. I mean, I understand it, but I absolutely do not care. I use both fairly interchangeably. If the genre has any merit then what you call it really doesn’t matter.

    The Russo (Nate in Venice) was very good. Nicely drawn characters, a nice use of place and sense for the contemporary world, and well written. I’ll be looking into more by him.

    Vishy, yes, he can write. I don’t say that of all SF authors, or even most of them (which is in part why I don’t read most of them). I plan to read his Yellow Blue Tibia later this year – Stalin has Soviet science fiction writers dream up a planned alien invasion to use for propaganda purposes. Their ideas never get used, but years later the invasion seems to be coming true…

    Wonderfully imaginative.

  8. Thanks Max: I’m a fan of the singles even if this isn’t one of them. I think we humans try to place a narrative on everything we encounter and it sounds as though this is what occurs here. Drs apparently are aware that patients with disease usually present with an elaborate narrative, often full of red herrings.

  9. I’m going to follow your advice for non SF fans and leave this one for aficionados.
    Nice review, as always.

  10. There is no greater service that one book blogger can do another Emma, than to put them off yet another book.

  11. Looking back, I could probably have said more here about how Ange learns from the aliens that people do in fact matter, but put that way it sounds trite and it’s just not the most interesting part of the story for me, even if it is fairly central to it.

  12. Out of curiosity, why Ange and not Angel?

  13. No idea. Perhaps Angel would be too obvious.

  14. I did read the book and am considering writing my own review, although I’m not quite sure how to do it without playing the spoiler. Not sure “Ange” has anything to do with Angel – maybe it’s short for anxiety or maybe it’s simply a futuristic adaptation of Angel, of the kind I do in my books. I found the ending a bit ambiguous and not all that positive. Ange’s turn-about in attitude simply adds to humanity’s on-going destruction of the universe. Have to think more about it if I do review it.

  15. It’s just that Ange means Angel in French. So I wondered if there was a reason for that name.

  16. Yes, and actually her name is Ange Mlinko, and she has lived in the Netherlands among other places. All the names of characters are rather ethnically confused. – to show something about the overcrowded society, I think. I don’t see Ange as being an angel.

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